You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Secret Life Of Bees

One of the ways of creating dramatic tension is to have a character or characters have a secret, one that the reader or audience knows but is kept hidden from others in the story. This creates a dissonance that must be settled before the story can be brought to a close. If two characters believe two different, incompatible things, then one must inevitably, if at length, acquire the knowledge that the audience or reader knows. It doesn't have to be a huge plot point, but it often helps support the main plot.

In Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life Of Bees, the secret is the central conflict of the story. Lily Owens is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her father in rural South Carolina in 1964, and her mother was killed in an accident when she was four. The circumstances of her mother's death, and her father's cruel treatment of her, are the main definitions of her life. She has no friends except for Rosaleen, the old colored woman her father hired to take care of her.

When Rosaleen is arrested and beaten after an altercation with white men, Lily gets her out of the hospital and they hit the road. Lily gets the idea of going to Tiburon, S.C., due to finding the town's name printed on the back of a black Madonna. There they find the source of the black Madonna, a pink house with three colored sisters, August, June, and May. Here Lily tells the lie that she will try to get out of for the rest of the book. She tells the ladies that her father has recently died and she is going to stay with her grandmother in Virginia and needs a place to stay. August lets her stay, over the objections of June.

Lily learns about beekeeping from August, who makes honey and wax. She learns about the black Madonna. The women have a figurehead that resembles a black Madonna, who they use in their worship services. She learns about the wall that May, a simple woman who is very sensitive, goes to when she has to cry about something. She makes a friend in a colored boy her age, Zach. But mostly she learns about love and forgiveness.

When Zach is involved in an incident in town and jailed, May ends up drowning herself in the river due to sorrow. Later, Lily finally tells August her true situation. Then August tells her (also told in due time) that she knew Lily's mother. She had been a maid for Lily's mother's family, and Lily's mother went to her when she left Lily's father. So Lily learns the truth that her mother left her with her father, then came back for her and ended up shot. Lily has to deal with forgiving her mother for leaving her, and herself for accidentally shooting her mother when she picked up the gun. Finally Lily's father comes for her, but with the power of the other women, and the black Madonna, she stands her ground, and her father leaves her in a huff. She ends up staying and learning the beekeeping business.

The book is infused with the themes of race and gender. The actions occur in the summer of 1964 during civil rights marches and sweeping changes. Lily is a girl without a mother, who finds a house full of mothers, and learns how to live with her own sense of mothering. The bees are symbol of motherhood and what happens without a mother. The queen bee is a symbol of all mothers, being mother to all bees in the hive. Lily's secret, and her waiting to tell it to August and the other women in the house, keeps the narrative going, but it gets to be tedious listening to Lily argue with herself about telling the truth. The message of motherhood and having power over oneself is a bit weak, almost cliched. The writing is good, but not gripping. I was never in doubt about the where the plot was going or how Lily would turn out. There was some mystery in the book, but barely enough to keep me interested. Overall it is an adequate story that might hold some interest for girls or young women. For me, it was a bit stale and dry. The themes of empowering oneself and coming to terms with one's past are uplifting, and bring the book up to a B-.


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